Okay, here’s a silly romance plot: The heroine is found asleep in the wrong man’s bed. She’s a sleepwalker, thus not responsible for her behavior. But the hero, her fiancé, does not know that, so he thinks she has betrayed him. She doesn’t know she’s a sleepwalker either, so she’s utterly confused. But she knows she didn’t betray the man she loves. She tries to convince the hero of her faithfulness. He rejects her, based entirely on the circumstantial evidence. He even plans to marry another woman that very day. But wait. The other man declares her innocence. And then the poor heroine, exhausted and brokenhearted from trying to convince her fiancé of her chastity, falls asleep and sleepwalks again. The hero sees and finally believes. He wakes her up, says he’s sorry, and they get married after all. (You’ve guessed it. I just described the plot of La Sonnambula, a 19th century opera currently being sung by two hot—and talented—singers at the Met, Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez.)
Isn’t this a classic, old-style romantic situation? Circumstances make the heroine seem bad, lots of suffering ensues, and then finally, her good name is restored and the hero takes her back. In our culture today, we reject that romance dynamic. Oh, maybe teenagers, who live in the claustrophobic equivalent of a 19th century village, still make their decisions based on gossip and externals. But adults mostly don’t in our society. A woman is supposed to be valued for who she is, not her reputation in the community for virginity. Moreover, a man is supposed to believe in the heroine, and not get caught up in external valuations of her to such a degree that he can’t see her true worth.
Still, this old-fashioned dynamic is alive and well in many other countries today, and, arguably, in any small, rigid community that still exists in our own. And we have to ask, well, what happens to this woman in five years, if people gossip about the mailman staying too long at the house? In what does the hero really place his faith? Not in the heroine, alas.
Lucky us, though. We’re not living in tiny 19th century villages where corrosive gossip can ruin our lives. And because romance novels mirror current romance ideals and standards, we expect a lively give-and-take between the heroine and the hero in our romance novels today, not a tragic melodrama of misunderstandings. Our romance characters act out—sometimes very strongly—behaviors associated with the principles of free will. The proof is visible on the covers of the popular urban fantasy novels of today, in which strong-willed and eerily-talented, feisty, independent women (whew!) fend off impending calamities and fight outsize battles that decide the fate of the universe. While also developing romantic relationships with vampires, demons, werewolves, or whoever. These heroines are not worrying about their reputations; they’ve got mort important things to do.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that the conviction-by-circumstance situation was a common romance plot, and heroines were a bit more passive. Or passive aggressive. And this kind of story still is being published. Considering that in its more melodramatic versions, it often required rather dramatic proof of virginity, we wonder, why would we put up with them? For some reason, a very old Harlequin Romance by Anne Mather, Lord of Zaracus, published in 1972, sticks in my mind. This one is laid out as a clash in cultures. The heroine, an American or a Brit, I forget which, visits Mexico and butts up against the prejudices of an autocratic, aristocratic, and melodramatic (!) hero. He assumes that she has the low morals of someone from a trashy American movie, and he listens to the poisonous lies of a catty Mexican girl in his household. Our poor heroine is too prideful to defend herself well. Or maybe just at a loss for words when everybody behaves so badly. Eventually, after various melodramatic events, the guy decides she’s a good girl after all. Thanks for nothing, fellow.
But there’s something about the sinned-against heroine plot that is appealing. Because even though it’s a story about circumstantial evidence, it’s also a story about trust and respect. And though such plots aren’t as common as they used to be, they’re still around. In La Sonnambula, the hero hurts the heroine with his lack of belief in her side of the story. She’s not judgmental; she doesn’t despise him for lacking faith in her. She’s wounded. Of course, he’s wounded, too, or he wouldn’t lash out. But he’s also not listening to her and hearing the truth. He’s not respecting or trusting her. Neither one of them is happy, and they can’t fix things because the problem is circumstantial and was never of their own making to begin with. Some other person or event has to provide the proof that will make them happy again.
Here’s one possibility to account for the seeming incongruity of these kinds of stories still being around long after our society has appeared to give women an equal place. For a lot of women, there is still the feeling that we are not valued in the world as we deserve to be. It hurts. Living through a version of this in fiction, and then being rescued from the misery and brought to a place of honor, or restored to it (and especially by a man who is romantically in love, which makes it very personal), is a kind of salve to the wound of being not-quite-equal in a supposedly equal society. Not sufficiently respected. Not listened to. Not believed. Fighting fictional demons may be the answer for some female personality types. But for others, the answer is the hero who finally realizes he has made a mistake—however that realization is brought about—and says he is sorry. That now, he believes.